1. Although life-history theory predicts that juvenile growth rates should be high, there is substantial evidence that most juveniles grow below their physiological maximum. The endocrine system plays an important role in the determination of fundamental life-history traits, and hormones often serve as a link between an organism’s environment and the expression of a trait. Particularly, growth is a life-history trait, which is strongly associated with growth hormone (GH) in fish, as well as most vertebrates.
2. To elucidate trade-offs related to elevated GH in fish in a natural environment, we experimentally administrated GH exogenously to juvenile Atlantic salmon using sustained-release GH implants, at an earlier ontogenetic stage than previously achieved (1·5 months). We assessed the effects on growth, dispersal and survival in contrasting environments.
3. Exogenous GH treatment increased the growth rate when fish were fed ad libitum in captivity. However, in a natural stream, GH treatment had a significant negative effect on growth and no apparent effect on survival or dispersal. This contrasts with previous studies conducted at later developmental stages, which show either a positive growth effect or no effect of elevated GH levels.
4. This study shows that environmental conditions strongly affect the response to GH and that under some natural conditions, it may also reduce growth. We suggest that the endogenous plasma GH levels may be maximizing growth during early, but not later, juvenile stages in nature.